Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Is Kona Coffee So Expensive?

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My last post regarding Kona coffee and espresso failed to cover on key aspect of Kona coffee that's very important.

First of all I mentioned my first foray into Kona coffee a few months back was actually a Kona coffee blend that I bought on sale at my local Safeway. I menjtioned the fact that this coffee was good but wasn't as good as it could have been but I neglected to mention that this was also due to the beans used and not just due to the age of the roast.

Kona coffee blends tend to be very inexpensive in comparison to the real 100% Kona coffees because they are usually made of only about 10% Kona coffee and 90% cheap coffee.

One can assume the 90% portion comes from a location where coffee is quite inexpensive so as to offset the high cost of the Kona beans.

Kona coffee in a 100% form is actually some of the most expensive coffees in the world and probably the most expensive coffee in the world by region. As you can see above in the accompanying picture Kona coffee is not just from Hawaii but only that coffee that comes from Kona. And to make it even more exclusive it's not just from the island of Kona but from the small 30 square mile belt known as the Kona Coffee Belt. It is in this ultra small region that conditions are perfect for coffee crop. Anything out of this zone can only be labeled Hawaiian coffee as it is not going to taste as good as what is grown in the belt of Kona.

In addition to a small geographic area geological conditions make this a difficult location to farm and cultivate the coffee crop. Although the conditions favor the growth of ultra fancy coffee it also makes it difficult to work the land. The slopes are steep, the ground is rocky and the cost of doing everything by hand gets very high.

Hawaii is not a cheap place to live and the conditions require Kona coffee growers to do everything by hand. Paying laborers to do the work adds up quickly as it can cost these farmers 20 times as much to pay their day laborers than it does in other cheap coffee producing regions.

Of course the coffee is worth it. If it weren't so good the costs of producing it would quickly overwhelm the demand and a supply glut would force many growers out of the market but as it is the demand for this region is high enough to warrant the high costs of the beans.

Do some looking around. I can assure you that any Kona coffee "blend" or "style" you come across will be relatively cheap but anything saying it's 100% Kona coffee will be mighty expensive. If you were to actually taste the difference in the blend versus the real stuff you would know that the blends are simply not anywhere close to the same caliber.

In many cases the price of 100% Kona coffee can still vary widely with some beans reaching the stratosphere in pricing and this is due to a regional grading system that all Kona coffees go through. To be labeled as Kona coffee the bean has to come from the belt but it must also be graded (which adds extra costs in and of itself). The grading process takes the beans and grades them based on size and quality. The best of them all obviously as more desirable and fetch a higher price on the market. The lower grade beans go for less.

This is why you can find 100% Kona beans for $20-$30 a pound as well as 100% Kona beans that are stretching up towards $100/lb. When purchasing Kona coffee be sure to look for the 100% to ensure you are getting what you actually want and then check the grade to understand what kind of price range you should expect.

The grading scale for Type I beans ranges from Extra Fancy to Fancy to Number 1 to Peaberry to Prime in descending order. Prime being the lowest grade and Extra Fancy being the highest (and most expensive).

I am actually kind of regretting my purchase of Safeway Kona blend now that I know more about it. Next time I get it I'll be going for a regional 100% Kona coffee roaster. Koa Coffee Plantation is currently the roaster highest on my radar.

Also, at the prices good Kona coffee goes for it pays to:

  • buy in small batches (to keep it fresh),
  • buy it in whole bean form to grind yourself at home,
  • and to buy the roast that goes best with your favorite coffee brewing technique.

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